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The Econobox
Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune

Our budget build's target price has fluctuated over the years, but our aim has always been the same: to spec out a solid budget gaming PC without ugly compromises. Decent graphics performance is a must here, as is a strong upgrade path.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-4130 3.4GHz $119.99
Motherboard Gigabyte H87-D3H $104.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $57.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB $149.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB $69.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 200R $59.99
Power supply Corsair CX430M $49.99
Total $627.92

As in the last edition of the guide, we're going with a dual-core Haswell chip instead of an AMD FX-series offering with more cores.

Yes, next-gen games may take advantage of more CPU threads than current titles. The system requirements for Watch Dogs, for instance, call for an old quad-core processor as a minimum, and they recommend top-of-the-line chips with eight threads. That makes sense, superficially speaking: the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both have eight x86 cores. Someone building a PC with next-gen games in mind therefore ought to get as many cores as he can. Right?

Well, not necessarily. The cores in the PS4 and Xbone are based on AMD's lightweight Jaguar architecture, so they're far slower than those inside modern desktop CPUs. Also, what we know about how games are coded tells us that single-threaded performance will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. Even in next-gen titles, we're unlikely to see workloads spread evenly across eight cores. Rather, we'll probably see one heavy workload and several light ones, which will make single-threaded performance the bottleneck.

Future titles optimized using AMD's Mantle API may use more threads, but Mantle will also cut CPU overhead dramatically. In the words of EA DICE's Johan Andersson, the CPU "should never really be a bottleneck for the GPU anymore" with Mantle.

For those reasons, we're comfortable recommending two fast Haswell cores with Hyper-Threading (giving us four threads total) for the Econobox. There are like-priced alternatives with more threads among AMD's FX-series processors, but those have lower per-thread performance. An FX-series chip with six threads, for example, could perform better in the heavily multithreaded workloads that might appear in next-gen games. However, it will still be slower when a single thread is the bottleneck, which is a common situation today and will remain so in the future.

So, yeah. The Core i3-4130 it is.

If you disagree with us, or you just want to root for the underdog, scroll down to our alternatives section. We've included an FX-6300 there. Just keep in mind that the FX-6300 has other disadvantages beside its poor single-threaded performance: much higher power consumption, an older platform with fewer features, and no upgrade path that we know of. If you're truly worried about multithreaded performance, then your best bet is probably to spend the extra $60 or so on a quad-core Haswell processor. One of those appears in the alts below, too.

Phew. Now that our overly long CPU recommendation is over with, let's speed through the less contentious stuff, like our motherboard recommendation.

Some folks have complained about the ASRock motherboard from our last guide, so we've spruced up our selection a little. We're still going with Intel's H87 chispet, since it has all the bells and whistles of the Z87 minus multiplier overclocking support and proper multi-GPU support, neither of which are needed for this build. However, we now recommend Gigabyte's H87-D3H.

This mobo is from a first-tier manufacturer, has good customer reviews, and is the most affordable H87 offering we could find with Intel networking and S/PDIF audio. Other notable features include a full-ATX form factor (a rarity among H87 offerings), four USB 3.0 ports, and six 6Gbps SATA ports. $105 may seem a little steep, but you'll be thanking us later.

Not long ago, Newegg's stocks were rife with value-oriented DIMMs from U.S.-based firms like Corsair, Crucial, and Kingston. These days, we can find only premium modules with correspondingly premium price tags from those companies. For a budget-constrained build like the Econobox, that's a problem.

Which brings us to G.Skill. The company operates out of Taiwan and has the world's ugliest website. However, its 8GB DDR3-1600 kit is a fair bit cheaper than the premium offerings mentioned above, and it has a five-star average out of hundreds of customer reviews at Newegg. More importantly, the company offers U.S.-based technical support and, from what we hear, is quite diligent when it comes to replacing faulty modules. Some of our forum mods recommend this memory highly. Given the savings involved, we think it's a good choice, too.

Earlier this year, price cuts brought both AMD's Radeon HD 7850 2GB and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB down to around $150. These cards have roughly equivalent performance, and they're both much faster than alternatives like the R7 260X and the standard GTX 650 Ti.

The Radeon got our vote last time. Unfortunately, 7850 2GB cards now seem to be priced closer to $170-190. The GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB, by contrast, looks like it's still available at $150. (We've even seen $140 cards pop in and out of stock over the past few days.) Since these cards are equivalent performers, we'll give the nod to the GeForce this time. Just bear in mind that demand is high, and our recommended MSI card may go out of stock. If that happens, head here to look for a similar model.

We don't have the budget to include an SSD by default, so Seagate's 1TB Barracuda returns as the Econobox's system drive. This 7,200-RPM mechanical drive has a single platter, 64MB of cache, and a 6Gbps Serial ATA interface. It also boasts higher performance ratings than WD's comparable Blue 1TB drive, which uses two platters and is likely to be noisier as a result. Too bad neither drive offers more than two years of warranty coverage.

We're rounding out our storage rec with a DVD burner. Optical drives are almost unnecessary in modern PCs, but this is a full-sized desktop, and we have three 5.25" drive bays just waiting to be filled. A DVD burner like Asus' DRW-24B1ST only costs an extra $20 or so, and it could come in handy.

Despite selling for just $60, Corsair's Carbide Series 200R is loaded with enthusiast-friendly features. Thumbscrews abound, the cable-routing holes are nice and wide, the tool-less drive bays work effortlessly, and Corsair even offers four dedicated 2.5" bays for SSDs and mini mechanical drives.

We've tested the 200R alongside the Antec Three Hundred Two, an improved version of the classic Three Hundred, and working in the Corsair case was far more comfortable and convenient. The 200R only had one disadvantage: it didn't keep components quite as cool as its Antec rival. The difference was relatively small, however, and we were stress-testing with high-end components that consume a lot more power than our Econobox config. Thermals shouldn't be an issue for this build.

Power supply
Since this system doesn't draw a lot of power, we don't need a beefy PSU. We do, however, want a modicum of quality. We'll spend a little more on a branded, high-efficiency unit with good reviews.

One such unit is Corsair's CX430M, which ticks all the right boxes for the Econobox: 80 Plus Bronze certification, a jumbo intake fan that should be reasonably quiet, a three-year warranty, and a low price. Not only that, but the CX430M also has modular cabling, which will help keep our internals as tidy as possible.

Note that this power supply only has two Serial ATA power connectors. That's fine for our default config, but if you want to add more drives, you'll need a 4-pin Molex to SATA power splitter. It's only $2, far less than the price difference between this PSU and other modular offerings with more built-in connectors.

Econobox alternatives
Want more processor cores, a faster graphics card, or a different storage setup? Read on.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD FX-6300 $109.99
Core i5-4430 3.0GHz $189.99
Motherboard Asus M5A97 LE R2.0 $74.99
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon R9 270 $179.99
Storage Kingston HyperX 120GB $99.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB $94.99

AMD's FX-6300 has six hardware cores. If next-gen games can tap into all those cores without suffering significant drawbacks from the chip's relatively sluggish per-thread performance, the FX-6300 may run those titles better than the Core i3 in our primary build. We don't think that's a likely scenario, though. The FX-6300 is also hamstrung by a large power envelope (95W, versus 54W for the Core i3) and its need to be paired with a Socket AM3+ motherboard like Asus' M5A97 LE R2.0. The AM3+ platform gives us fewer USB 3.0 ports, slower USB and Serial ATA performance, and a limited upgrade path. It also lacks the SSD caching capabilities built into modern Intel chipsets.

If you want extra cores, the best option, we think, is to spend a little more and buy the Core i5-4430, which is the most affordable quad-core member of the desktop Haswell family. The i5-4430 has more cores and great single-threaded performance, so it should handle next-gen games well no matter their requirements. Shoppers future-proofing for upcoming games may want to splurge on a little extra memory, too.

On the graphics front, the 7850 2GB's recent price markup makes it an unappealing alternative. Instead, you might as well spring for the Radeon R9 270, which rings in at $180 and is a fair bit faster.

Finally, we have a couple of storage alternatives to recommend.

For those who can afford one, a solid-state drive is an indispensable addition to any PC. The drastically decreased application load times alone are enough to make you a lifelong convert. We didn't have room in the Econobox's $600 budget for an SSD, but we do in the alts. Kingston's HyperX 120GB is fast, capacious, and cheap. Other options exist in this price range, but the most appropriate alternative, Samsung's 840 EVO 120GB, has slower write speed ratings than the HyperX.

Just because we're recommending an SSD doesn't mean mechanical storage is unnecessary. Going with the 2TB version of Seagate's Barracuda instead of the 1TB model is a good idea even for folks who put their operating system on a solid-state drive. It's always nice to have room for more high-definition videos and pirate loot Linux ISOs. The 'cuda is fast enough to fill in as a boot drive, too, for those who can't afford the SSD on top of it.